Greenhouses Gases and Vegetarianism

The world is struggling to protect the environment and achieve sustainability. Climate change and greenhouse gas emissions are real concerns. Population growth has exploded from around one billion people two centuries ago to seven billion now, of which more than 10 percent do not have enough to eat. Under these conditions, it is imperative to re-examine the environmental impact of human diet.

In preparation for the Paris climate conference in December, India has recently put forward its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to limit its carbon emissions and mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. Nowhere in India’s INDC is there any discussion of the environmental impact of human diet, meat in general and beef in particular.

Evidence suggests that meat is the largest contributor to greenhouse gases. A study by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations reveals that the production and consumption of meat are responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, as compared to 13 percent from all transportation. A non-vegetarian diet can release anywhere between two to ten times more carbon dioxide equivalents than a vegetarian diet, depending on the type of meat. Beef production releases methane, which is 23 times more harmful than CO2. One pound of dry beans produces 0.4 kilograms of CO2 equivalents against 1.6 produced by chicken and 7 by beef. Greenhouse gases cause global warming and meat produces greenhouse gases.

The study by the FAO also concludes that livestock agriculture is the ‘single largest anthropogenic user of land.’ Livestock takes up 70 per cent of all agricultural land, making it a key factor responsible for deforestation and degradation. A non-vegetarian diet not only leads to more degradation but also requires more land for its production. A Netherlands-based study published in 2002 noted that an ‘affluent’ diet requires three times as much land as a vegetarian diet. With the world population growing and people suffering from hunger, it is remarkable to consume a diet which needs more land and even degrades it.

The American state of California is suffering from acute water shortage. The Pacific Institute, a US-based research center, reports that meat and dairy products consume nearly half of California’s water. India too is a water-stressed country. Falling water tables pose a food security risk for the nation, and agriculture is a key sector for water consumption. The FAO also observes that livestock is the largest source of water pollution. Livestock maintenance pollutes freshwater sources, degrades coral reefs in coastal seas and harms human health. Therefore, just like land use and degradation, meat consumes more water while also polluting more of it. Land and water resources are used to produce grains which are in turn used to raise livestock. This has significant consequences for land, water and energy available to the world.

To understand how diet measures up against other efforts towards sustainability, consider solar energy. Typically, solar energy saves one kilogram of carbon emissions per kilowatt-hour of energy. An average Indian consumes 700 kWh per year. Shifting to solar energy saves that many kilograms of CO2 equivalents. Shifting to a non-meat diet can save up to 1 ton of carbon emissions per person per year, more than that achieved through solar energy. And the cost? Zero. The world can take a big step towards sustainability, and this is a step that comes at no cost. In fact, it saves money while saving the planet.

Roughly 40 percent of Indians are vegetarian, making India home to more vegetarians than the rest of the world combined. This saves enormous amounts of greenhouse gases when compared to other nations. When the parties meet to negotiate climate change, India must highlight its vegetarian behaviour. India’s INDCs should be based not only on what the government is planning to do. It should also come from what Indian people have been doing for years. Five hundred million Indians have mitigated and will keep mitigating global climate change, simply by not eating meat. India should support sustainability efforts for research, development and entrepreneurship so that humans can gradually shift to a green and healthy diet.

The referred study by the FAO gives all possible solutions to save resources and reduce emissions but does not advocate a change in dietary habits. The UN and the international community need to recognize meat reduction as an actionable goal in order to achieve sustainability. In a scenario where eating beef has become criminal for some and fashionable for others, we need to forge a middle path. This path should neither be criminal nor fashionable, but rather responsible. There is no conservative or progressive way to save the environment. There’s only the way that works.

Armin Rosencranz, advisor to Vision India Foundation, and Sahil Aggarwal, program director.

The article was originally published in The Statesman.